Sega’s classic gaming efforts over the past few years have been, shall we say, inconsistent. While their Sega Ages reissues have been standout examples of how to preserve and reproduce classic arcade and console titles, their mini-Genesis consoles have been an unmitigated disaster. Produced by a company called AtGames, these annual Genesis systems ostensibly should have been accurate, downscaled recreations of the popular 16-bit console (even running original Genesis cartridges); in practice, however, they’ve been an insult to Sega’s own classic legacy. Characterized by shoddy emulation, visual glitches, ear-shredding audio output, and incompatibility with cartridges boasting battery-backed save files, the AtGames consoles are a textbook example of how not to treat video game history.
For this year’s mini-Genesis, however, Sega has finally put things right. While the Genesis Mini loses the older systems’ support for original cartridges in favor of 42 baked-in game titles, it more than makes up for this loss by massively improving every other aspect of the overall experience. The Genesis Mini isn’t without a handful of shortcomings, but these are fairly minor issues. The system’s overall excellence goes a long way toward washing away the bitter memories of the AtGames years and leapfrogs the system to which it was clearly designed as a competitor: Nintendo’s Super NES Classic.
Like the Super NES Classic, the Genesis mini is a to-scale recreation of the console it imitates—in this case, a Model 1 Genesis or Mega Drive, depending on the region. The design is so spot-on that the American Mini’s cartridge slot (which includes working, spring-loaded flaps) can’t fit the reproduction Japanese-style mini-cartridges Sega was selling at this year’s Tokyo Game Show as collectibles to pair with Japan’s Mega Drive Mini. The original carts were slightly different sizes and shapes in each region, and so too are the mini-carts and mini-console slots they’re meant to fit in.
Of course, this is just a bit of cosmetic whimsy that has no bearing on the actual function of the machine. But it does speak to the fidelity Sega has invested into this small, USB-powered game system—and, of course, the great work done by developer M2, who have handled the majority of the heavy lifting for the Mini. For Sega (and classic gaming) fans, the Mini-plus-M2 pairing is a best combination imaginable. M2 has made its name with a number of top-flight retrogaming ventures in recent years, but their best work has always revolved around Sega. They’re the talent behind the Sega Ages releases for Switch, for 3DS before that, and for PlayStation 2 before that. Not only does M2’s team have 15 years of working intimately with Genesis emulation under its collective belt, it has a great reverence for recreating the experience of playing classic games.
The Mini doesn’t include any over-the-top features like the gyro-based motion cabinet simulation M2 included for 3DS reissues like Super Hang-On and Galaxy Force II, but the Mini is the next best thing to playing these games on original hardware on a high-end analog television. Attentive players may notice a tiny amount of input and audio lag, and the included Genesis reproduction controllers feel a shade flimsier and less responsive than proper hardware, but this is the only area in which the Genesis Mini doesn’t live up to (or exceed) the Super NES Classic Edition. In every other respect, Sega and M2 have assembled a perfect combination of nostalgia, fidelity, and variety.
For starters, this system includes more than twice as many game selections as the Super NES mini did. This makes for a more interesting form of curation than we’ve seen on competing mini-systems. While many of the obvious selections are accounted for here—the Sonics and Streets of Rages we’ve seen ad nauseum—the Genesis Mini goes after some deeper cuts as well. Games like Alicia Dragoon and Road Rash 2 won’t top anyone’s best-of-Genesis lists, but their inclusion gives consumers a better taste of the extremes that defined the original console’s actual lineup than would be possible by sticking to safer, top-rated selections.
Even more impressively, Sega dredged up some genuine rarities and never-before-seen works. For example, Mega Man: The Wily Wars isn’t as good as the NES Mega Man games it compiles, but the actual Genesis release never came out on a cartridge in the U.S. It was exclusive to the long-defunct Sega Channel download service outside of Japan. Monster World 4, the final 16-bit Wonder Boy sequel, languished as a Japan-only release until it was localized for Xbox Live Arcade a decade ago; the Genesis mini repatriates the game with its original hardware (sort of) and English-language text for Americans. There’s also a Darius game that appears to be an official reworking of a fan creation, as well as a version of Tetris whose origins are shrouded in uncertainty. It’s a more adventurous lineup than Nintendo and Sony’s mini-consoles have chosen to explore, and even the most diehard Sega enthusiast will find something new to experience here.
It’s admittedly difficult not to complain about the more conspicuous absences on the Mini; there’s still no Sonic & Knuckles lock-on options, and adding Thunder Force III over the superior Lightening Force seems like a real miss. Likewise, no one in their right mind would prefer the terrible Genesis conversion of Virtua Fighter 2 over, well, basically anything. The Mini lacks any Sega CD or 32X games, which (contrary to popular internet opinion) were often quite good and deserve representation. Nevertheless, there’s a lot of great stuff here that rarely if ever appears on other Sega compilations: Capcom’s system-selling conversion of Strider, two good Disney games (which is to say, two games that aren’t The Lion King), Konami’s offbeat Genesis sequels to Castlevania and Contra, top-notch RPGs like Phantasy Star IV and Legend of Oasis, and more.
M2 has baked a decent selection of display options into the Genesis Mini. There’s no option to fine-tune the graphics and sound output as on the high-end Analogue Sg Genesis clone, but for a basic consumer-level gadget it does the trick. You can choose pixel-perfect output, stretch the screen to fill a wide monitor (pro-tip: Don’t do this), add simulated scanlines to help soften the intense pixel visuals, and stick a handful of graphical borders around the screen. It also includes save states to help you finally see the end of Sonic 1 or Comix Zone. It’s all standard fare, but the Mini does it well.
While there’s certainly room for improvement in the Genesis Mini (especially the controllers), most of its shortcomings are wholly subjective. Even with a generous 42 games in its library, there’s no combination of selections that would satisfy every Sega fan. And, as with all the other mini-consoles on the market, this is a closed box that provides no means through which to update the system firmware, add new game selections, or do anything but play the several dozen included games. It does that well, though, and that’s really the whole point of this exercise. It also raises the bar for quality, detail, and selection above the mini-consoles that have come before it.
The Genesis Mini is no substitute for something like a modded Sega Genesis or Analogue Sg—but it’s not meant to be. This is an inexpensive way to play a lot of great Genesis games on an HDTV with plug-and-play simplicity (the setup consists entirely of plugging in the attached HDMI cable and USB power cord), and the fidelity of both the console and the preloaded games beats any previous mini-Genesis, or even the recent PC/console Sega Genesis Collection release. It offers a huge amount of bang for the buck, and it’s a great chance to relive (or experience for the first time) a great selection of 16-bit hits and obscurities. This is the best mini-console on the market… at least until the TurboGrafx-16 mini ships next year. The 16-bit console wars will never truly end, it seems.
The Modern Genesis Experience: How the Mini Stacks Up
If you want to play Genesis games on modern television sets and don’t want to dabble in illegal game piracy to use on PC emulators, you have a few different options. The Mini easily offers the highest-quality experience for the best price. Here are the specifics:
Original Genesis hardware:
A working Genesis with controllers and hooksup will run you about $50-70 depending on the model and its condition. However, playing it on an HDTV is a terrible experience without an expensive video upscaler ($200-400). Stock Genesis hardware will look terrible and suffer significant input lag on an HD or 4K set, rendering it nearly unplayable.
Sega Genesis Classics:
Available for current consoles, this costs $50 less than the Genesis Mini and includes about 10 additional games. However, besides the added cost of the console, this anthology suffers from distracting audio glitches and occasional bursts of stuttering not present in the Mini.
Analogue Co.’s clone console is a masterpiece of hardware simulation, capable of running any game you throw at it and offering full support for Sega CD. It also offers an enormous array of output options, including granular controls for fine-tuning video scaling and audio quality. However, at $189 for the console alone, it’s not a casual investment—and it comes with no games.